A bedridden, white-haired Rev. Maurice McCrackin ended his three-week hunger strike today, vowing to continue his fight against the system that jailed him for refusing to testify against two escaped convicts who allegedly kidnaped him last November.

"Breaking my fast may cause more concern to be focused on all prisoners and the debasing conditions under which they live," said the 73-year-old McCrackin, a prison reform advocate who was jailed Jan. 19 for failing to answer a subpoena from the Hamilton County grand jury investigating the alleged kidnaping.

"What is unchanged, of course, is my silence before any courts regarding the prisoners who escaped the horror of the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility at Lucasville and stopped at my home in their flight," he said in a prepared statement released from his guarded hospital room here.

McCrackin has stated his refusal to testify is based on moral beliefs.

From a wheelchair in Common Pleas court last week, he refused any involvement in a process that would lead to the further incarceration of his alleged captors in an institution which he says violates the rights of its prisoners.

The Lucasville facility was found to be overcrowded by a federal court last year. Its population still exceeds the limit set by U.S. District Court Judge Timothy Hogan last April.

Hamilton County prosecutor Simon Leis, a tough law and order advocate who two years ago gained an obscenity conviction against Hustler magazine publisher Larry C. Flynt, has said McCrackin does not need a court order to gain his freedom.

Leis says all McCrackin has to do is answer the grand jury's questions or cite a constitutional reason as to why he cannot. "We have two absolutists fighting for their respective positions," said Allen Brown, the court-appointed attorney who failed to get a writ of habeas corpus from the Ohio First District Court of Appeals today.

"It's my belief that an individual fighting for a matter of conscience should have precedence over a man fighting for power," he said.

Ohio law specifies a person must testify before a grand jury, and if he refuses, he can be held in jail for contempt of court.

"Whether Mr. McCrackin is a saint is not an issue," said Arthur Ney, first assistant county prosecutor. "Everyone has to participate under the law, even if he wants to say he's not going to answer that question."

Hospital officials said McCrackin, who lost 20 pounds during the hunger strike, should be stable enough to return to the county jail within a few days.

Brow, after losing his appeal for McCrackin's release late today, said he is unsure what action his client will now choose to take.

McCrackin, a civil rights activist in the 1940s and 1950s and an ardent antiwar protester in the 1960s, could conceivably be incarcerated for nine months -- until the grand jury reaches the end of its term.